Treatment of Clients

  • Clients may wish to be paired with certain staff, volunteers, interpreters or counselors, and not others. Although it is important to respect clients’ wishes regarding the gender of their legal adviser, and it is common for woman clients who have experienced gender based violence (GBV) to ask to speak to a woman only, it may not always be possible to guarantee such pairings. It is important for male staff or volunteers to take extra care when attending to sensitive cases with female clients and demonstrate empathy even if clients state that a man cannot understand their situation. Some women may be extremely reserved if talking to an adviser who is a man, which may hinder progress in preparing a case.
  • It is vital to stress to all clients that all communication is confidential. This is of utmost importance in GBV cases, particularly when talking about rape. You should display confidence when asking family members to leave the room for a confidential conversation to take place. Typically, when a woman client hints at being raped, all men should leave the room and only one woman should remain. This is to ensure that the client feels comfortable when she is asked to give an in-depth account of her story.
  • However, there may also be benefits to welcoming dependents and other family members into meetings and working with them on litigation processes (many cases may involve multiple litigants – related or otherwise). This may help spread gender-sensitive relations within family units or groups by promoting tolerance through exposing them to a wider understanding of the types of gender-related concerns individuals face. This is not to be construed as a waiver to the confidentiality privilege, and when there are multiple litigants, one-on-one meetings must take place because the testimony that petitioners give can be biased when there is another petitioner in the room.
  • As strategic litigation processes are, by nature, lengthy, it is important to guarantee continuity of attention in an environment with a high turnover of legal advisers. This is difficult when your organization has a small staff but runs with many volunteers.Take great care to make sure that clients do not feel passed around or are ever unnecessarily retraumatized – manage case handover closely. The client should not have to recount their testimony more than once – this should be accurately recorded in the early stages of contact, and subsequent staff and volunteers working on the case should familiarize themselves with all aspects of the case to avoid asking superfluous and potentially damaging questions later on. This does not mean that the client may not be asked at different points how they are managing the stress of the incident or what the client’s life at that time is like. Further, it does not mean that it is unacceptable to hold a series of interviews in order to obtain a comprehensive account from the client.
  • Every individual reacts differently to emotional stress. Without accentuating gender characteristics or cultures, you may notice that certain people tend to react in similar ways. Anger and shouting may be a common reaction where men are expected not to show emotions or be perceived as ‘weak,’ while crying and silence may be a response among others. Ideally a gender-trained psychologist should be engaged as a resource. Lawyers may consider having them present in meetings to observe and assist clients overcoming difficult emotional burdens, but should take care that this presence does not waive the lawyer-client privilege, depending on the jurisdiction. If for jurisdictional issues or other circumstances, psychologists cannot be present, a psychologist can be utilized to help debrief the client. Unexpected emotional reactions should not influence any credibility assessment you perform on a client. Cultural differences in gender roles play as important and complex a role as trauma in determining behavior.
  • Ensuring that clients are aware of an available mechanism for anonymous complaint submission if they do not feel that their gender-related concerns are sensitively addressed is necessary for continued client confidence and trust. Checking that clients feel the litigation process has been made as gender-sensitive as possible may also be factored into monitoring and evaluation exercises.
  • Every effort should be made to support a client’s healing throughout the duration of a long and often draining impact litigation case. This is known as ‘comprehensive justice,’ and additional information is available in the Spanish-language paper below, and summarized in the notes from the Second Annual Strategic Litigation Roundtable held in the margins of the UNHCR Annual Consultations with NGOs 2014. Helping the client understand that gender-based discrimination and violence is structural and not the fault of the individual may help them break the GBV cycle and obtain some measure of healing and non-judicial rehabilitation. Understanding that these structural issues are what has put individual(s) at a disadvantage may empower clients to address structural causes of violence through participation in advocacy or support groups.
    • Helping clients think through or set out ‘life plans’ or goals is a vital step and may also reduce the client’s potential dependency on the outcome of their case which will take a long time to be resolved, and may not ultimately deliver the redress they are expecting. The strategic litigation process must not become the individual’s only hope for healing and improving their life. Envisaging and building life goals and plans may enable them to access some measure of justice by continuing their lives and moving on from the trauma of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV). This is arguably a form of risk mitigation as well as client empowerment. Clients that are empowered in this way are better prepared for the future, including long-term engagement with their case and related responsibilities. It is important to recognize that organisations have an interest that goes beyond that of the client, given the emblematic nature of such cases. Therefore, the individual petitioner should have a strong support system and fully comprehend the shared responsibility. Long-term relationships in any walk of life can create elements of dependency. This should be avoided by equipping the client with some essential tools to continue living independently.
  • Clients should always be referred to or included in support groups, women’s empowerment groups and other avenues that enable them to ‘unlearn’ structural violence and prepare themselves for the future.